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Ecological conscience in Hopkins's "God's Grandeur".


Arguably well ahead of his time and even ahead of our own, Gerard Manley Hopkins's poems were virtually unsung until their publication by Robert Bridges in 1918. Many of Hopkins's poems point to the sentimentality and fixation often associated with the Victorian era, and his poetic complexities distance modern readers from a relative ease of understanding. Nature is the thematic center in "God's Grandeur," as in many of Hopkins's most celebrated sonnets. Drawing from Hopkins's focus on the natural world, an ecological paradigm becomes one way teachers can elucidate the work of one of England's most important poets.

Another Way to Teach Hopkins

Taking advantage of an ecological outlook and using it to ignite student readers is now one of the keys to heightening interest in Hopkins. Hopkins's poetic statements about environment are ultimately successful, as contemporary students can understand the significance of the natural world surrounding them by reading his work in an ecological context. By revealing these ideas to students in the poetry, teachers of Hopkins can more seamlessly cover the more abstract concepts of nature: beauty in nature; rhapsody, detachment, and coalescence with nature; and, finally, students' interconnected, symbiotic places in the natural world.

Arguably the most celebrated of Hopkins's poems are his nature sonnets, one of the most notable being "God's Grandeur." As with most of Hopkins's nature sonnets, "God's Grandeur" blossoms with luxuriant and luscious language, utilizing the fields and forces of the natural landscape to channel Christological, ontological, and, as I will argue, ecological didactics. This poem also reveals Hopkins's almost painful sensitivity to the "inscapes" of his environment, to his anagogical keenness in bringing meaning to and from the natural world.

A myriad of texts exist concerning both the Christological and linguistic function of Hopkins's work, but there is little in the way of Hopkins and ecology. This is not to suggest that ecocriticism itself fails to bloom in today's literary community; the "greening" of texts plays an integral role in contemporary English studies since scholars like Cheryll Glotfelty and Karl Kroeber have become America's authoritative guides on the subject. Here dwells another conundrum: Kroeber's intensive ecocritical approach to the Romantic poets in his book-length study Ecological Literary Criticism: Romantic Imagining and the Biology of Mind succeeds in both linking and contextualizing the English Romantic poets to contemporary social and scientific activities, but the great majority of ecocriticism is chiefly American-centered, attuned to writers like Thoreau, Robinson Jeffers, and William Carlos Williams (The Ecocriticism Reader). Since the 1970's, American perception has grown more adjusted to an ecologically-centered milieu, and this America, still the most wasteful nation on earth, has produced concerned, ecologically minded literary scholars in direct proportion to its increasing environmental consciousness. Many students today also share this interest in ecological issues and the material world.

While the studies created from this consciousness (and creation) of American environmental toxicity and potential disaster are crucial, almost no contemporary ecological studies apply to the nature poems of the Victorian era, a time synonymous with the rise of industry and a similar perception of environment. In order to construct an adequate understanding of nature-centered and nature-conscious literature, it is necessary to observe the gestation of this particular mentality. Hopkins deserves to be included in these studies because his work is sensitive to the motif of ecological interconnectedness and the broken relationship between humans and the wilderness in the upset industrial landscapes of Victorian England. More important to the teacher of Hopkins's is his ecological sensibility and how it applies to the modern student.

Given the overt roles that nature and environment play in Hopkins's poems, it surprises that almost no ecocritical scholarship exists about his work. Critics and teachers who focus on the nature as a cultural anomaly in Hopkins's poetry and turn a blind-eye to his use of the earth's energies, the environment, and the sustaining world and its creatures fail to note that his poems are what classical ecocritic William Rueckert calls "stored energy, a formal turbulence, a living thing, a swirl in the flow"; "[a] part of the energy pathway which sustains life"; and even more than these "a verbal equivalent of fossil fuel (stored energy) and renewable sources of energy, coming, as they do, from those ever generative twin matrices, language and imagination" (108). More importantly, these scholars fail to see the potential link in making Hopkins's verse accessible to modern students through the poet's conscious linking of things--his knowledge that all things are globally interrelated. To Hopkins, dependent upon the amount of care with which the observer gives these things accounts for the perceptive ability of the observer: he teaches to slow down, to savor, and to absorb. However, one must observe certain things in order to gain this acuity and detach himself from the man-made world, the world of computers, television, and telephones, and begin to communicate with things other than human in order to fully understand his humanity.

The issues that I wish to observe involve Hopkins's use of the natural world and its interplay with humanity. Borrowing from the scholarship of Cheryll Glotfelty and J. Scott Bryson, I intend to briefly define "ecopoetry" and to view Hopkins through the lens of an ecological criticism, to observe "God's Grandeur" in terms of its uniquely explicit statements on man's detrimental affect of the natural world and the latter's resilient response, to examine how Hopkins's narrator's inner self corresponds directly and intuitively with the outer world, a communication between mind and nature and whether such a correspondence is feasible; and finally to speculate on the concept of ecological interconnectedness in "God's Grandeur." These concepts--destruction of nature and symbiosis with nature--not only teach students about Hopkins's verse, but about the wild world around them and a great deal about themselves. In short, Hopkins's work succeeds by providing students with a text from which they understand their potential in a God- or universe-made world, to emotionally link to the cosmos.

Hopkins, Ecopoetry, and Rejection of the "Hyperrational"

Defining Hopkins as ecopoet invites some explanation of the term "ecopoetry." J. Scott Bryson claims that ecopoetry must first succeed in emphasizing an "ecocentric perspective that recognizes interdependent nature" since such a perception leads to a connection to particular places and to the land itself, along with those creatures that share it with humankind (5-6). This interdependence, Bryson says, "pulls all things into a relationship and [...] can be found throughout ecopoetry" (6). "God's Grandeur" explores this sacred nexus--the integral inscapes that link man to nature and nature to man. The second attribute of ecopoetry, drawn directly from this awareness of the natural world and its community, is "an imperative toward humility in relationships with both human and nonhuman nature" (6). "God's Grandeur" is anything but oblique in expressing humility toward things of the wild world, whose "nature is never spent" despite man's tendency to "soil" and "smear" himself and the environment around him. Directly associated to this idea of humility is ecopoetry's third characteristic: "an intense skepticism concerning hyperrationality, that usually leads to an indictment of an overtechnologized modern world and a warning concerning the very real potential for ecological catastrophe" (6) "God's Grandeur" investigates this potential by portraying a natural world rejected by a mankind too concerned with its own devices. Further, there is evidence that Hopkins directly criticized "hyperrationality" and the intolerant objectivity of Victorian science that, during his time, was the name of the game.

This does not mean that Hopkins lacked the capability to observe with controlled insight. Tom Zaniello, in his book Hopkins in the Age of Darwin, focuses on the significance of a particular Hopkins letter:
 [t]he letter moves back and forth between the naturalist's detail
 and the painter's palette; [the letter] attracted some attention in
 scientific circles, for it earned him the title of "observer in the
 Royal Society's Krakatoa report," which reprinted parts of his
 letter. (121)

Hopkins's fluctuation between scientific precision and artistic description reflected his belief in the rationality of hyper-observation through the keen eye and the rejection of the notion of "hyperrationality," understanding it as the "hazardous thing." Keeping with this notion, in "Revaluing Nature: Toward an Ecological Criticism," Glen A. Love sides with the so-called "deep" ecologists who contend that man "must break through its preoccupation with mediating between only human issues," the naive belief that all will be well if man deals only with the inter-human and hyperrational (227). Love's point resonates in the sonnet "God's Grandeur," Hopkins's most decisive piece on potential environmental disaster and this disaster's reversal through the world's own pliability; and the poem is directly consistent with Barry Commoner's third law of ecology: "nature knows best" (Lewis par. 11). "God's Grandeur" most visibly reveals Hopkins's concern about his environment. Attuned to the "inscapes" of all that surrounded his world, the burgeoning industrial society forced upon him the
 troubling awareness that [he had] reached the age of environmental
 limits, a time when the consequences of human actions [were]
 damaging the planet's life support systems. (Glotfelty xx)

He knew, then, that "either we change our ways or we face [...] catastrophe, destroying much beauty [...] in our headlong race toward apocalypse" (xx). Richard D. Altick notes that the steam-engines and great mills, the great factory systems so synonymous with Victorian Britain, suffused and covered both the 'contiguous landscape' and all of English society with a dark, diseased haze: "All over hung a cloud of sulphurous smoke, the delusive sign of prosperity. When the chimneys billowed and the very rain was dirty, people were 'in work'" (45). Aware of this delusion, Hopkins sought the multivalent objects in nature, the forces through which he felt God most strongly, to reveal the indefatigability of the "dearest freshness deep down things" despite the dreary cities in the distance. Although "God's Grandeur" flowers with optimism, Hopkins's criticism of human defilement of the environment is both clear and persistent.

Communication enhancements through the internet and cellular technology have helped to link people together, but the "troubling awareness" that Glotfelty so assiduously points out in modern ecocritical work exists in "God's Grandeur" as a franker warning: these sorts of conveniences paradoxically stagnate the human race into a sluggish selfrighteousness in which they are fully distanced from anything natural. This sort of statement, while controversial, is true, and both provocative and beneficial for modern literature teachers and their students. Students, through an ecological approach to Hopkins's poetry, begin to connect their own alienation from the natural world to the Victorian perceptions at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

Re-contextualizing "God's Grandeur"

The octave's first quatrain reveals Hopkins's revelatory insight that the earth around him is imbued with God's force--a majestic, miraculous, and quaking presence. Knitted so intimately to this natural world and finding this nature symbiotically accessible, Hopkins cannot fathom why man would fail to dignify the God that has created it:
 The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
 It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
 It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
 Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?

This stanza offers a fluid segue for instruction in literature classrooms: Hopkins's tone suggests that whether or not humankind participates in this natural environment, the world will flourish and shine nonetheless. However, the world is offering its brilliance to those who seek it. Hopkins's first suggests that man's free will should, in all logicality, bring him into harmony with nature and into an understanding of his place beneath the "charge" of its "greatness." This is obviously not the case, as Hopkins questions man's failure: "Why do men then now not reck his rod?" Man has not only failed to recognize the force of the beauty around him, but has succeeded in blighting it:
 Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
 And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
 And wears man's smudge, and shares man's smell: the soil
 Is bear now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

Literature and environment scholar Terry Gifford helps to elucidate an instructional quality of the stanza in noting that "this devastatingly simple image of our species' ultimate alienation from earth on which we tread demands that we learn again to tread lightly and sensitively on the soil by recognizing [...] the 'bright wings' of dawn, or the 'ooze of oil'" (80). The seamless energy of the poem is at this stage suspended by the prodding "have trod, have trod, have trod"--an image of the sacred earth defiled by the boots of a vacant and apathetic humankind--and the words "seared," "bleared," "smeared," "toil," "smudge," and "smell."

As Marylou Motto has pointed out, the words in line six through seven take on an imitative quality, seeking to "smear" into one another, reflecting man's careless smearing of earth (51). The second quatrain within the octave notes man's contemporary distance from nature, how by working from day to day and ignoring the gift of the outdoor world humans succeed in not only defiling the environment but also the human heart. Humanity's feet, being "shod," serve as both a metaphorical function that remark on a conscious separation from the fertile world, and too a literal inability to feel and absorb tangible objects in nature. Despite the apathy, languidness, and ignorance of man, nature (God) still suffuses the earth with a dazzling life:
 And, for all this, nature is never spent;
 There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
 And though the last lights off the black West went
 Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastwards, springs--Because
 the Holy Ghost over the bent
 World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

The world--much like the creative ability in a human being--sits with a hidden beauty ready to hatch. Having penetrated the world and "fathered-forth" a promise of fertility, nature--whether separate from man or not--is made impermeable and inexhaustible. Despite man's tendency to "trod" and "soil," nature's things are deep, sustaining, and far more powerful. If man succumbs and acquiesces to the world, then it may, too, become a part of the beauty, stripping away the mechanistic habits that have distanced it from a sensitivity most crucial to its spiritual survival. Essentially, as in his terrible sonnets and in other poems like "Inversnaid" and "The Starlight Night," Hopkins asks readers to imagine a world stripped bare of its fecundity, an apocalyptic and barren landscape after global crisis. By virtue of its deliberate imagery to describe the season's movement, Hopkins's last stanza strikes readers with the powerful understanding: though human beings may have a negative impact on nature, a delicate approach to the environment can reform them and reverse the harm they have already caused.

Hopkins's sonnet "God's Grandeur" works toward a distinct ecopoetics, and the themes can aid both contemporary teachers and students in finding the poetry more accessible and enjoyable. Hopkins's best nature poetry maintains an ecocentric perspective that values the intercounectedness of the world, gestures humbly before this nonhuman half of the biosphere, and finally indicts hyperrational and overly technological approaches to the environment. The poems arrange, too, with Commoner's laws of ecology, and contagiously spread their earthy wisdom through the inescapable attraction of their dictional and syntactical idiosyncrasy, aligning, by extension, with the idiosyncrasy of the landscape--the "dappledness" and "counterness" of our own earth. By drawing attention to these substantial links in the poetry, teachers can ignite a greater interest in Hopkins and in other ecologically-centered literatures. In doing so, teachers may fred that students learn that ideas do not float in some ethereal heaven but interact and intermingle in poetry like Hopkins's, helping to bring unwieldy forces into a unified whole.


Altick, Richard D. Victorian People and Ideas: A Companion for the modern Reader of Victorian Literature. New York and London: W.W. Norton & Co., 1973.

Bryson, J. Scott. Introduction. Ecopoetry: A Critical Introduction. Salt Lake City: U of Utah P, 2002.

Gifford, Terry. "Contemporary Ecopoets: Gary Snyder and the Post-Pastoral." Ecopoetry: A Critical Introduction. Salt Lake City: U of Utah P, 2002. 80.

Glotfelty, Cheryll. "Literary Studies in the Age of Environmental Crisis." The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology. Athens and London: U of Georgia P, 1996. XX.

Hopkins, Gerard Manley. "God's Grandeur." Gerard Manley Hopkins: Selected Poetry. Oxford World's Classics Edition. Oxford and New York: Oxford LIP, 1998. 114.

Lewis, Dorothy L. "Constructing Their Own Understanding." 14 April 2003. par .9, 11. content/cntareas/science/sc5constr.htm

Love, Glen A. "Revaluing Nature: Toward an Ecological Criticism." The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology. Eds. Cheryll Glotfelty & Harold Fromm Athens & London: U of Georgia P, 1996.

Motto, Marylou. Mined with a Motion: The Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. New Jersey: Rutgers UP, 1984.

Rueckert, William. "Literature and Ecology: An Experiment in Ecocriticism.'" The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology. Eds. Cheryll Glotfelty & Harold Fromm. Athens and London: U of Georgia P, 1996.

Zaniello, Tom. Hopkins in the Age of Darwin. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1988.

William Wright, Sam Houston State University

Wright is an experienced teacher and has work published or forthcoming in The Texas Review, Avocet Quarterly, Yemassee, The Oswald Review, and Phoebe.
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Author:Wright, William (English priest)
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Date:Dec 22, 2003
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